When I Knew I Was Racist (And How I Know I Probably Still Am)

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I’ve been totally distracted by the news about the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. We talked about it this morning at bootcamp class in my affluent, mostly white suburb. The fact that people there are angry is, I think, a small glimmer of hope. Erik and I lamented it before he left for work. My kids have spent the day with altogether too much screen time while I putter around a wonder what on earth I’m supposed to do about this. I tried to write some other things. I read an article about reforms to policing and drafted a letter to local politicians (but I’m not sure it’s a good letter…I need to let it sit).

And among the wisest things I’ve seen today? What can white people like me do, people who have the privilege of dipping in and out at will of our frustrations about the state of race relations in America? We can talk about race, and most specifically, we can talk about white privilege and racism. (Link to Denise Anderson tweet.) And we can best talk about it not by pointing to the speck of dust (or, for that matter, log) in another white person’s eyes, but by paying attention to the log in our own eyes. We can name racism and white supremacy in ourselves.

So, here goes: the story of the time when I discovered for certain that I am racist.

For two years, I taught at Providence-St. Mel School in Chicago. My students were all African American. I was not trained as a teacher, so I learned how to teach while I was there (well, sort of…I like to think I learned a bit about education, if only because the principal and my supervising teacher were amazing and wise women who were patient with me and taught me what they could).

But the most important thing I learned there? I am a racist. I had never in my life been the only white person in the room for the majority of my waking hours. And in spite of the best intentions of my upbringing by loving, respectful, progressive parents, well, the culture of race in America is really damn pervasive. It just gets in there, whether you want it to or not.

I remember the exact moment that I recognized it. We used seating charts at PSM. The seating chart was the cornerstone of my classroom management plan. I had to know who was sitting where, who would do best sitting or not sitting next to whom, who needed to be in a seat where I could quickly and easily stand near them while lecturing in case they needed some incentive to pay attention. All those things. I poured over my seating charts every month, making changes, rotating kids. I was deliberate with those charts, thoughtful.

One afternoon, I was sitting at my desk reviewing some seating charts, and a few conversations I’d had (with other teachers and with students) and articles I’d read recently clicked. Here were things I’d heard recently, that suddenly moved together in my head like puzzle pieces (I’m sorry, as I recall this, that I cannot remember which things came from conversations or which from articles or studies):

Students with better grades tend to sit in the front. Sometimes by choice. Sometimes by assignment.
People tend to favor people with lighter skin. Even when you take a group of people of the same race, the lighter the skin, the more advantages given to the individual.
Among students of color, students with lighter skin will often have higher grades.

Wait, I thought. What about my seating charts? I pulled up my grades on the computer. I set my seating charts next to it. Yes, there were a few outlying “A” students who sat in the back. There was a student hear and there whose skin tone didn’t correspond with grades.

But, I looked over my seating charts and it was right there. The majority of the time, the VAST majority of the time, I was seating students with lighter skin color closer to the front of the room. And, in general, the students who were closer to the front of the room had higher grades.

I had no idea I was doing this. My bias was buried so deep in my brain that I did it without knowing it.

But now I knew it. I was racist.

Yes. I worked hard to make my seating charts better.

And, yes. I’m still racist. The lies about race are still rattling around in my brain, and I still have moments like that one, where I am appalled to realize the judgement I am making based on someone’s race.

I am part of this awful, horrible system that judged people by the color of their skin. And the most evil part of this system? How it just sneaks in everywhere, how we don’t even realize how pervasive it is.

I don’t think we’re anywhere close to rooting this out of ourselves, and out of our culture. I’m going to keep looking for it in myself, though. I’m not going to despair. Because despair would be pulling the covers over my head and trying to ignore it.

And ignorance clearly isn’t working.

Photo by Deepak Adhikari, used under creative commons